Roads, runways, and airport expansion in the Climate Emergency era

On 18th June the Canadian Government declared a climate emergency. The next day, it approved the controversial Transmountain Pipeline Expansion. If the pipeline is built it could result in up to 600,000 barrels of oil from Alberta's tar sands passing through the port city of Burnaby in British Columbia to reach the export market. The disconnect between these two actions is staggering. It has been described as an example of rank hypocrisy, and has caused many to question whether the "climate emergency" declaration passed by the government is even worth the paper its written on. 

In light of the clear disconnect between the Canadian government's actions and its continued support for new high-carbon infrastructure projects, we thought it worth thinking about what might be happening closer to home. Across the country, local and regional governments have made declarations recognising that we are now living in a climate emergency. According to data collected by Climate Emergency UK over 100 local authorities have passed declarations in the past six months, and they have now been joined by the UK Parliament and the Scottish and Welsh Governments. Many of these declarations have been accompanied by ambitious targets for reaching net zero emissions, with nearly 70 councils setting deadlines for de-carbonisation by 2030.

Just as in Canada, however, many of these declarations have not yet translated into concrete action. As transport is now the highest emitting sector in the UK, it is clear that we need to take major steps to discourage car use if we are to meet emissions reductions targets. Even so, Shropshire, which passed a climate emergency declaration in May (although without the 2030 target originally proposed), is pushing ahead with plans for the new North West Relief Road. In March Herefordshire also declared a climate emergency, but it has not so far cancelled plans for the Hereford Bypass, despite demands from campaigners. Instead of continuing to channel public spending into environmentally damaging schemes, public authorities should be redirecting this money towards low carbon alternatives including public transport. 

Emissions from aviation also remain one of the biggest concerns. As the debate about the third runway at Heathrow continues to rage, local airport expansions are also on the cards. Bristol, for example, which has recently set a 2030 target to reach net zero emissions is currently considering an airport expansion that would lead to an increase in emissions nearly as great as those from all other homes, transport, and industry in the city of Bristol.  Meanwhile Manchester City Council, which has been praised for its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2038, has left Manchester City Airport out of its climate action plan entirely. 

It’s clear then, that local authority decision-making – at least in some areas – hasn’t yet caught up with local authority rhetoric. So what does that mean for campaigners? Should we abandon efforts to get climate emergency declarations passed, as some critics have recently suggested?

We think not. Although we’re still far from seeing the action needed to address the climate emergency across the board, there are reasons to be hopeful. In Oxford, for example, the language of the climate emergency and the work of climate campaigners continues to inform the debate about the controversial new Oxford-Cambridge Expressway. And when passing its own climate emergency declaration in March, Bath and North East Somerset Council voted to include opposition to the Bristol Airport expansion plans as a key part of that resolution. Even in councils where an emergency has not formally been declared a shift in thinking is starting to take place. Uttlesford District Council, for example, recently withdrew its support for plans to expand nearby Stanstead Airport citing the need to consider the impact of increased greenhouse gas emissions as a factor in its decision.

These examples show that while its worth maintaining scrutiny about the potential for the term “climate emergency” to be co-opted, climate emergency declarations can nonetheless provide another string to the bow for campaigners seeking an end to a business as usual approach to carbon-intensive infrastructure projects.

Click here for more information about the campaign against the Bristol Airport expansion plans and here for more information about the campaign in Manchester.

Click here for ideas about next steps local councils can take once a climate emergency has been declared.